The No. 3 Arizona State Sun Devils (12-0) are off to their best start in school history and have matched their highest-ever national ranking.
The No. 17 Arizona Wildcats (10-3) have won seven straight games, are undefeated at home this season and have won seven in a row vs. ASU at McKale Center.
Saturday's Pac-12 opener in Tucson will mark the first meeting between a ranked UA team and a ranked ASU team since 1995.
Will the Devils remain undefeated, or will the Wildcats hand ASU its first loss of the season? Here are three things to watch and a prediction for Saturday's matchup, which will begin at 7 p.m. and air on Pac-12 Network.
1. The twin towers vs. ASU’s pace
The 7-foot Wildcat combo of possible 2018 No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and senior Dusan Ristic is a handful for any opponent, but they could be a liability on the defensive side of the ball against ASU, which averages a Pac-12-best 91.8 points per game.
UA coach Sean Miller may opt for a slightly smaller, faster lineup to match up with sharpshooting guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice, who account for three of the Pac-12’s four leaders in 3-pointers made per game. If that happens, ASU’s newfound size in Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell, freshman Romello White and 6-foot-10 forward De’Quon Lake may become a problem for Arizona.
With their added size this season, the Devils have become a much trickier team to adequately defend. The chess match between Miller and ASU coach Bobby Hurley will be fascinating to watch.
2. UA’s 3-point ability
Much of the discussion going into this game has centered on whether Arizona can handle the number of Sun Devils who shoot lights out from beyond the arc. But ASU could have its hands full in that category, as well.
ASU is shooting 39.9 percent from 3-point range this season, but the Cats are right behind at 39.4 percent, and Arizona boasts the Pac-12’s best 3-point shooter in point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who is shooting 52.9 percent from distance this season. No, the Wildcats don’t depend on 3-pointers as much as ASU does, and the Devils have held opponents to 33.2 percent from beyond the arc this season. But it Arizona shoots 40 percent or better from 3-point range Saturday, the Devils could be in for a long night.
3. Foul trouble
Arizona’s strategy early in Saturday’s game could be to use Ayton and Ristic, as well as the penetration ability of Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins, to get ASU’s big men in foul trouble. In particular, White has committed at least four fouls in five of ASU’s 12 games this season and has fouled out once.
On the flip side, ASU may look to go after Ayton to send him to the bench early, as UConn was able to do in a game vs. the Wildcats last week. Ayton has committed four fouls three times this year and has fouled out once.
Both teams are near the middle of the NCAA in terms of fouls per game: Arizona commits 18.2 per contest, while ASU commits 17.6. Early foul trouble Saturday could help either team get out to an early lead and set the tone for the rest of the night.
Despite what some UA fans think (or hope), I don’t think ASU is destined to “come crashing down to Earth” following its incredible start. But the Sun Devils have had an advantage over the Wildcats and other teams who feature a number of one-and-done players, simply because they haven’t had to recreate themselves this year. The nucleus of this year’s ASU team is the same as last year’s, and the senior trio of Holder, Evans and Justice has been outstanding through the Devils' non-conference schedule.
But the Wildcats are simply a more talented team than ASU, and they have begun to carve out an identity of their own since last month's ill-fated trip to the Bahamas when they lost three games in a row. They’ve won seven straight and have a healthy Alkins, who missed the first month of the season with a foot injury – and on Saturday, they’ll have a McKale Center crowd that will generate the kind of noise that’s usually reserved for when UCLA comes to town.
If the Devils make 15-plus 3-pointers on Saturday – which they’re capable of doing on any given night – all bets are off. But I like UA to win its eighth straight game, as well as its eighth in a row over ASU in McKale, as the Ayton-Ristic combo will be a bit too much for the Devils to handle for 40 minutes.